Treat Yourself 2011: Self Care is Important in Student Affairs

By Ryan Manning —Working in Student Affairs is a lot of work. I mean it, sometimes there’s just a lot to do. The more and more that I build connections with other professionals in this field, the more that I notice this. The strange part is that I never seem to notice that I’m all that busy, and neither does anyone else.

I’m finishing up my 3rd week at my new job, and for someone that stepped into a position mid-year, that pretty much means I’m pretty much right in the deep end. I’m meeting with RAs (who are amazing, by the way), working with the area council, having judicial hearings, working on committees, getting supplies for programs, and pretty much 85% of the normal responsibilities of anyone in my position. I’ve gone from having very few time commitments in week 1 to having a hard time finding open space on my Outlook calendar in week 3. For me, that feeling of making great use of my time is satisfying. 

I have a lot of friends with jobs similar to mine, or at least in the same general field of higher education, whether that’s in student activities, career services, development, or at a non-profit that’s “higher education adjacent.” Being the good friends that they are, they’ve been quick to ask me how I’m settling in to the new position. A week ago, my answer was, “I love it here, I can’t wait until I get into a routine of having a lot of things to do.”  Typically, my declaration of free time was met with obvious envy, as I heard laundry lists of tasks that my “I’m so busy, I hardly have time to catch my breath” comrades had looming over their heads.

Now, I don’t know if this makes me sound a little conceited or just lazy, but in my 25 years of life, I can’t remember a time that I’ve ever been “too busy.” Sure there have been times that I’ve gotten overwhelmed by the emotional or physical drain of certain tasks, or panicked over a paper that I couldn’t seem to grasp. But I don’t think that I’ve ever felt inundated with a mass of demands on my time. This revelation has sort of led me to the realization that being “busy” is hardly something you can measure objectively.

Maybe I am just especially good at managing my time, or the stress level that I am portraying (I can think of a few people that would disagree with the latter), or maybe I just have a good instinct for when it’s alright to “cut corners.” Or maybe I just don’t get my motivation from letting others know just how much is on my plate. In this field, some people wear their busy-ness like a badge of honor, an indicator of just how hard they work to help students out.

My 10th-grade Latin teacher and advisor of my local and state Junior Classical League chapter is the perfect example. The woman has been an amazing mentor and support for me since I was in 7th grade (though, imagine her disappointment when I ventured off the Latin teacher career path), but if you ask any past or present student officer of the Boston Latin Academy Classics Club to describe her, one of the first words you’ll hear is “busy” or some variation (more likely “frantic”). From my experiences with her, I learned just how contagious stress and a concern for effectively managing one’s time can be. And it’s from these experiences that I vowed never to let all of the work I had to do get in the way of accomplishing what that work was really all about.

Whether we are working with 2-year olds or 22-year olds, our students are just as busy, if not moreso than we are. Today’s average high school students have practically every minute of their day planned out for them, from 5:00 am swim practice to 5:00pm oboe lessons.

Our college students aren’t too different, running from work-study to a fraternity meeting to intra-murals to the library until it closes, as they may crave the structure that high school afforded them. Basically, our students struggle to make time for their own wellness without having a mentor or role model with the same issue. And really, as we spend our days running from meeting to meeting and freaking out about all that we have to do, don’t we think that rubs off on those students  — making them feel like a burden on our time, and aren’t we just making it alright for our students to live at the same frantic pace?

We constantly encourage our students to strive to be the best versions of themselves that they can be. How are we supposed to do that if we aren’t striving to do the same for ourselves as professionals and a human beings ? As frequent readers will know, I live my life by lessons I have learned through TV and movies (See: “Everything I Know, I Learned From Clueless“), and here comes another one. Last week, the new episode of Parks and Recreation showcased an annual practice of a few characters called “Treat Yourself 2011,” where staff members take the day off of work to enjoy some time at the spa, a fancy meal or two, and a shopping spree.

While “Treat Yourself 2011” may have been just plain hilarious, it also serves as a great reminder to all of us. You can’t be your best self if you aren’t making your own wellness a top priority.  So, instead of working yourself to the point of exhaustion, take a break from grading papers to watch your favorite movie, don’t worry about attending every single program your students are sponsoring and go buy yourself a new sweater instead. If there’s something you can’t get to at 5:00 when you leave the office, it’ll still be there in the morning, so handle it then.

Even treating yourself the smallest bit can have the biggest effect on putting that pep back in your step, and I’m sure that your students, co-workers, and supervisor will probably take note.

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